Tempers flare in Sino-EU safety row

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2007, 12:00am

Mandelson speech angers Wu Yi

Wrangling between China and the European Union over mainland product safety intensified yesterday, with Vice-Premier Wu Yi publicly rebuking visiting EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson for his criticism of China's safety record.

The heated exchange came just two days ahead of the annual China-EU summit, at the opening of the International High-Level Food Safety Forum in Beijing.

After the opening ceremony of the forum, the 'Iron Lady' stopped Mr Mandelson, who had lashed out at China's food and consumer goods safety, for almost five minutes to voice her displeasure with his speech.

'What you said is true. But you should bring that out in the bilateral talks [instead of a public forum],' an angry Ms Wu told Mr Mandelson before they left the podium.

In her opening speech for the forum, organised by the central government, Ms Wu reiterated the position that China opposed countries politicising the food safety issue and singling individual countries out for criticism.

In his subsequent speech, Mr Mandelson said China was the place of origin of most substandard products seized by EU authorities last year and the problem was likely to worsen.

Mr Mandelson blamed China for a 'tidal wave' of counterfeit goods flooding into the EU. He also explicitly rebutted some major points Ms Wu made in her opening speech.

When asked at the end of the ceremony to comment on Mr Mandelson's speech, an angry-looking Ms Wu said: 'I am extremely dissatisfied.'

In her address earlier, Ms Wu repeated the central government's commonly used defence that 99 per cent of the mainland's food exports were safe, but Mr Mandelson said that was not good enough.

'During the summer some Chinese officials pointed out that less than 1 per cent of China's exports to Europe had alleged health risks. But Europe imports half a billion euros worth of goods from China every day - so even 1 per cent is not acceptable,' he said. 'Consumer safety is a zero compromise issue.'

Ms Wu also accused importers of Chinese goods of using food and product safety as an excuse for protectionism.

Mr Mandelson disputed that too. 'I strongly reject the argument that strong consumer protection rules are trade protectionism. I was frustrated by those who tried to turn the events of this year into an unfounded argument about protectionism,' he said.

Speaking later in the day, Mr Mandelson said Ms Wu had been upset only by his comment on counterfeit goods. 'But that's a fact. We must seek truth from the facts,' he said.

Analysts believe the bickering is a strategy on both sides to increase their bargaining power in the run-up to the China-EU leaders summit tomorrow.

Zhang Xiaojin , of the Centre for European Studies at Renmin University, said: 'The honeymoon for Sino-EU relations is over. China and the EU are strategic competitors and it is normal to express views in a straightforward manner.

'But China is not ready yet. It may be shocked by such straightforward expression by the EU.'